Archived Story

Sustainable farming for a sustainable planet

Published 8:15pm Thursday, November 21, 2013

By Betsy Burdett
This column is being written from Antigua, Guatemala.
I came with my friend Peg Henneke. Peg came to be with her daughter, Katie, while she has her first baby (born Oct. 22) and I came to visit our sister church, Iglesia Presbiteriano El Buen Samaritano.
While Peg is off doing the grandmother routine, I’m taking Spanish language classes here in Antigua.
Today our Spanish class went on a field trip to visit a finca (farm) that grows macadamia nuts. They pick, sort and dry the nuts on site. They also sell, on site, products made from the dried macadamia nuts such as candy, beauty oils and creams. The entire nut processing system is simple yet efficient; there is no electricity on the farm, so everything must be done by hand or with a small gas powered engine. The operation is totally organic, which helps the finca owners market their products in the organic nitch.
During the lecture, we were looking at the lush vegetation surrounding Antigua.
Antigua is very wet and hilly. Unsuitable for cultivation with tractors and big equipment, it has never had chemical poisons and fertilizers used on the land. How I wish that were the case with us in the United States.
In Polk County, cotton was once one of our main crops, and we all know just how much cotton depletes the soil. The soil of the Great Plains is completely nutrient deficient, because of over cultivation and chemical fertilizers. In order to replenish those soils enough to grow healthy organic crops, it would take years of adding compost and organic matter, years of no income. Even in Guatemala the huge sugar plantations owned by multinationals have been drowned with chemicals. It is only marginal areas that have escaped the worldwide “advantages” of modern chemical farming.
One of the Spanish language students in my class here is a man my age who bought a small coffee finca in Panama 10 years ago. He is producing organic coffee there, and it is a struggle. The same is true for the small coffee fincas here in Guatemala. It is the modern equivalent of subsistence farming. But these folks believe in farming, and they believe that they are contributing to the quality of life for their communities.
Profit is not their main goal; living in harmony with the earth, while providing a living for themselves and their workers, is the main goal of these agricultural entrepreneurs. One of the coffee finca owners said that his job is not to manage profit, but rather to wisely manage scarcity.
It seems like everything is the same, yet different, wherever I go. In Guatemala inequities are easier to see because there is no sugar coating, no glossy advertising as is the case in the United States. The rich are very rich, and the poor are very poor. Commercial farm workers here work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for between $3 and $4 a day. It is because of these workers that we are able to buy cheap bananas, sugar and coffee. Employment on a sugar plantation is barely one step above slavery.
There are people, however, who want to make a difference, and they are doing just that. People from the US and other countries, who have been educated and have made enough money to be able to buy a small farm in Guatemala or Costa Rica or Panama, diligently work to run their farms sustainably. They have seen the results of modern industrialized agriculture and they are trying a different way.
We have young farmers in Polk County doing the same thing. They farm, they work outside of the farm to make ends meet, and they are doing what they believe is right for the future of our children, and our planet.
For these people, we give thanks.

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